ST. MARTIN'S SUMMER
By Rafael Sabatini
Originally published in 1921
I. THE SENESCHAL OF DAUPHINY II. MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE III. THE DOWAGER'S COMPLIANCE IV. THE CHATEAU DE CONDILLAC V. MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE LOSES HIS TEMPER VI. MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE KEEPS HIS TEMPER VII. THE OPENING OF THE TRAP VIII. THE CLOSING OF THE TRAP IX. THE SENESCHAL'S ADVICE X. THE RECRUIT XI. VALERIE'S GAOLER XII. A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE XIII. THE COURIER XIV. FLORIMOND'S LETTER XV. THE CONFERENCE XVI. THE UNEXPECTED XVII. HOW MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE LEFT CONDILLAC XVIII. IN THE MOAT XIX. THROUGH THE NIGHT XX. FLORIMOND DE CONDILLAC XXI. THE GHOST IN THE CUPBOARD XXII. THE OFFICES OF MOTHER CHURCH XXIII. THE JUDGMENT OF GARNACHE XXIV. SAINT MARTINS EVE
SAINT MARTIN'S SUMMER
CHAPTER I. THE SENESCHAL OF DAUPHINY
My Lord of Tressan, His Majesty's Seneschal of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken undergarment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.
His wig—imposed upon him by necessity, not fashion lay on the table amid a confusion of dusty papers, and on his little fat nose, round and red as a cherry at its end, rested the bridge of his horn-rimmed spectacles. His bald head—so bald and shining that it conveyed an unpleasant sense of nakedness, suggesting that its uncovering had been an act of indelicacy on the owner's part—rested on the back of his great chair, and hid from sight the gaudy escutcheon wrought upon the crimson leather. His eyes were closed, his mouth open, and whether from that mouth or from his nose—or, perhaps, conflicting for issue between both—there came a snorting, rumbling sound to proclaim that my Lord the Seneschal was hard at work upon the King's business.
Yonder, at a meaner table, in an angle between two windows, a pale-faced thread-bare secretary was performing for a yearly pittance the duties for which my Lord the Seneschal was rewarded by emoluments disproportionately large.
The air of that vast apartment was disturbed by the sounds of Monsieur de Tressan's slumbers, the scratch and splutter of the secretary's pen, and the occasional hiss and crackle of the logs that burned in the great, cavern-like fireplace. Suddenly to these another sound was added. With a rasp and rattle the heavy curtains of blue velvet flecked with silver fleurs-de-lys were swept from the doorway, and the master of Monsieur de Tressan's household, in a well filled suit of black relieved by his heavy chain of office, stepped pompously forward.
The secretary dropped his pen, and shot a frightened glance at his slumbering master; then raised his hands above his head, and shook them wildly at the head lackey.
"Sh!" he whispered tragically. "Doucement, Monsieur Anselme."
Anselme paused. He appreciated the gravity of the situation. His bearing lost some of its dignity; his face underwent a change. Then with a recovery of some part of his erstwhile resolution:
"Nevertheless, he must be awakened," he announced, but in an undertone, as if afraid to do the thing he said must needs be done.
The horror in the secretary's eyes increased, but Anselme's reflected none of it. It was a grave thing, he knew by former experience, to arouse His Majesty's Seneschal of Dauphiny from his after-dinner nap; but it was an almost graver thing to fail in obedience to that black-eyed woman below who was demanding an audience.
Anselme realized that he was between the sword and the wall. He was, however, a man of a deliberate habit that was begotten of inherent indolence and nurtured among the good things that fell to his share as master of the Tressan household. Thoughtfully he caressed his tuft of red beard, puffed out his cheeks, and raised his eyes to the ceiling in appeal or denunciation to the heaven which he believed was somewhere beyond it.
"Nevertheless, he must be awakened," he repeated.
And then Fate came to his assistance. Somewhere in the house a door banged like a cannon-shot. Perspiration broke upon the secretary's brow. He sank limply back in his chair, giving himself up for lost. Anselme started and bit the knuckle of his forefinger in a manner suggesting an inarticulate imprecation.
My Lord the Seneschal moved. The noise of his slumbers culminated in a sudden, choking grunt, and abruptly ceased. His eyelids rolled slowly back, like an owl's, revealing pale blue eyes, which fixed themselves first upon the ceiling, then upon Anselme. Instantly he sat up, puffing and scowling, his hands shuffling his papers.
"A thousand devils! Anselme, why am I interrupted?" he grumbled querulously, still half-asleep. "What the plague do you want? Have you no thought for the King's affairs? Babylas"—this to his secretary—"did I not tell you that I had much to do; that I must not be disturbed?"
It was the great vanity of the life of this man, who did nothing, to appear the busiest fellow in all France, and no audience—not even that of his own lackeys—was too mean for him to take the stage to in that predilect role.
"Monsieur le Comte," said Anselme, in tones of abject self-effacement, "I had never dared intrude had the matter been of less urgency. But Madame the Dowager of Condillac is below. She begs to see Your Excellency instantly."
At once there was a change. Tressan became wide-awake upon the instant. His first act was to pass one hand over the wax-like surface of his bald head, whilst his other snatched at his wig. Then he heaved himself ponderously out of his great chair. He donned his wig, awry in his haste, and lurched forward towards Anselme, his fat fingers straining at his open doublet and drawing it together.
"Madame la Douairiere here?" he cried. "Make fast these buttons, rascal! Quick! Am I to receive a lady thus? Am I—? Babylas," he snapped, interrupting himself and turning aside even as Anselme put forth hands to do his bidding. "A mirror, from my closet! Dispatch!"
The secretary was gone in a flash, and in a flash returned, even as Anselme completed his master's toilet. But clearly Monsieur de Tressan had awakened in a peevish humour, for no sooner were the buttons of his doublet secured than with his own fingers he tore them loose again, cursing his majordomo the while with vigour.
"You dog, Anselme, have you no sense of fitness, no discrimination? Am I to appear in this garment of the mode of a half-century ago before Madame la Marquise? Take it off; take it off, man! Get me the coat that came last month from Paris—the yellow one with the hanging sleeves and the gold buttons, and a sash—the crimson sash I had from Taillemant. Can you move no quicker, animal? Are you still here?"
Anselme, thus enjoined, lent an unwonted alacrity to his movements, waddling grotesquely like a hastening waterfowl. Between him and the secretary they dressed my Lord the Seneschal, and decked him out till he was fit to compare with a bird of paradise for gorgeousness of colouring if not for harmony of hues and elegance of outline.
Babylas held the mirror, and Anselme adjusted the Seneschal's wig, whilst Tressan himself twisted his black mustachios—how they kept their colour was a mystery to his acquaintance—and combed the tuft of beard that sprouted from one of his several chins.
He took a last look at his reflection, rehearsed a smile, and bade Anselme introduce his visitor. He desired his secretary to go to the devil, but, thinking better of it, he recalled him as he reached the door. His cherished vanity craved expression.
"Wait!" said he. "There is a letter must be written. The King's business may not suffer postponement—not for all the dowagers in France. Sit down."
Babylas obeyed him. Tressan stood with his back to the open door. His ears, strained to listen, had caught the swish of a woman's gown. He cleared his throat, and began to dictate:
"To Her Majesty the Queen-Regent—" He paused, and stood with knitted brows, deep in thought. Then he ponderously repeated—"To Her Majesty the Queen Regent—Have you got that?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Comte. 'To Her Majesty the Queen Regent.'"
There was a step, and a throat-clearing cough behind him.
"Monsieur de Tressan," said a woman's voice, a rich, melodious voice, if haughty and arrogant of intonation.
On the instant he turned, advanced a step, and bowed.
"Your humblest servant, madame," said he, his hand upon his heart. "This is an honour which—"
"Which necessity thrusts upon you," she broke in imperiously. "Dismiss that fellow."
The secretary, pale and shy, had risen. His eyes dilated at the woman's speech. He looked for a catastrophe as the natural result of her taking such a tone with this man who was the terror of his household and of all Grenoble. Instead, the Lord Seneschal's meekness left him breathless with surprise.
"He is my secretary, madame. We were at work as you came. I was on the point of inditing a letter to Her Majesty. The office of Seneschal in a province such as Dauphiny is helas!—no sinecure." He sighed like one whose brain is weary. "It leaves a man little time even to eat or sleep."
"You will be needing a holiday, then," said she, with cool insolence. "Take one for once, and let the King's business give place for half an hour to mine."
The secretary's horror grew by leaps and bounds.
Surely the storm would burst at last about this audacious woman's head. But the Lord Seneschal—usually so fiery and tempestuous—did no more than make her another of his absurd bows.
"You anticipate, madame, the very words I was about to utter. Babylas, vanish!" And he waved the scribbler doorwards with a contemptuous hand. "Take your papers with you—into my closet there. We will resume that letter to Her Majesty when madame shall have left me."
The secretary gathered up his papers, his quills, and his inkhorn, and went his way, accounting the end of the world at hand.
When the door had closed upon him, the Seneschal, with another bow and a simper, placed a chair at his visitor's disposal. She looked at the chair, then looked at the man much as she had looked at the chair, and turning her back contemptuously on both, she sauntered towards the fireplace. She stood before the blaze, with her whip tucked under her arm, drawing off her stout riding-gloves. She was a tall, splendidly proportioned woman, of a superb beauty of countenance, for all that she was well past the spring of life.
In the waning light of that October afternoon none would have guessed her age to be so much as thirty, though in the sunlight you might have set it at a little more. But in no light at all would you have guessed the truth, that her next would be her forty-second birthday. Her face was pale, of an ivory pallor that gleamed in sharp contrast with the ebony of her lustrous hair. Under the long lashes of low lids a pair of eyes black and insolent set off the haughty lines of her scarlet lips. Her nose was thin and straight, her neck an ivory pillar splendidly upright upon her handsome shoulders.
She was dressed for riding, in a gown of sapphire velvet, handsomely laced in gold across the stomacher, and surmounted at the neck, where it was cut low and square, by the starched band of fine linen which in France was already replacing the more elaborate ruff. On her head, over a linen coif, she wore a tall-crowned grey beaver, swathed with a scarf of blue and gold.
Standing by the hearth, one foot on the stone kerb, one elbow leaning lightly on the overmantel, she proceeded leisurely to remove her gloves.
The Seneschal observed her with eyes that held an odd mixture of furtiveness and admiration, his fingers—plump, indolent-looking stumps—plucking at his beard.
"Did you but know, Marquise, with what joy, with what a—"
"I will imagine it, whatever it may be," she broke in, with that brusque arrogance that marked her bearing. "The time for flowers of rhetoric is not now. There is trouble coming, man; trouble, dire trouble."
Up went the Seneschal's brows; his eyes grew wider.
"Trouble?" quoth he. And, having opened his mouth to give exit to that single word, open he left it.
She laughed lazily, her lip curling, her face twisting oddly, and mechanically she began to draw on again the glove she had drawn off.
"By your face I see how well you understand me," she sneered. "The trouble concerns Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye."
"From Paris—does it come from Court?" His voice was sunk.
She nodded. "You are a miracle of intuition today, Tressan."
He thrust his tiny tuft of beard between his teeth—a trick he had when perplexed or thoughtful. "Ah!" he exclaimed at last, and it sounded like an indrawn breath of apprehension. "Tell me more."
"What more is there to tell? You have the epitome of the story."
"But what is the nature of the trouble? What form does it take, and by whom are you advised of it?"
"A friend in Paris sent me word, and his messenger did his work well, else had Monsieur de Garnache been here before him, and I had not so much as had the mercy of this forewarning."
"Garnache?" quoth the Count. "Who is Garnache?"
"The emissary of the Queen-Regent. He has been dispatched hither by her to see that Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye has justice and enlargement."
Tressan fell suddenly to groaning and wringing his hands a pathetic figure had it been less absurd.
"I warned you, madame! I warned you how it would end," he cried. "I told you—"
"Oh, I remember the things you told me," she cut in, scorn in her voice. "You may spare yourself their repetition. What is done is done, and I'll not—I would not—have it undone. Queen-Regent or no Queen-Regent, I am mistress at Condillac; my word is the only law we know, and I intend that so it shall continue."
Tressan looked at her in surprise. This unreasoning, feminine obstinacy so wrought upon him that he permitted himself a smile and a lapse into irony and banter.
"Parfaitement," said he, spreading his hands, and bowing. "Why speak of trouble, then?"
She beat her whip impatiently against her gown, her eyes staring into the fire. "Because, my attitude being such as it is, trouble will there be."
The Seneschal shrugged his shoulders, and moved a step towards her. He was cast down to think that he might have spared himself the trouble of donning his beautiful yellow doublet from Paris. She had eyes for no finery that afternoon. He was cast down, too, to think how things might go with him when this trouble came. It entered his thoughts that he had lain long on a bed of roses in this pleasant corner of Dauphiny, and he was smitten now with fear lest of the roses he should find nothing remaining but the thorns.
"How came the Queen-Regent to hear of—of mademoiselle's—ah—situation?" he inquired.
The Marquise swung round upon him in a passion.
"The girl found a dog of a traitor to bear a letter for her. That is enough. If ever chance or fate should bring him my way, by God! he shall hang without shrift."
Then she put her anger from her; put from her, too, the insolence and scorn with which so lavishly she had addressed him hitherto. Instead she assumed a suppliant air, her beautiful eyes meltingly set upon his face.
"Tressan," said she in her altered voice, "I am beset by enemies. But you will not forsake me? You will stand by me to the end—will you not, my friend? I can count upon you, at least?"
"In all things, madame," he answered, under the spell of her gaze. "What force does this man Garnache bring with him? Have you ascertained?"
"He brings none," she answered, triumph in her glance.
"None?" he echoed, horror in his. "None? Then—then—"
He tossed his arms to heaven, and stood a limp and shaken thing. She leaned forward, and regarded him stricken in surprise.
"Diable! What ails you?" she snapped. "Could I have given you better news?"
"If you could have given me worse, I cannot think what it might have been," he groaned. Then, as if smitten by a sudden notion that flashed a gleam of hope into this terrifying darkness that was settling down upon him, he suddenly looked up. "You mean to resist him?" he inquired.
She stared at him a second, then laughed, a thought unpleasantly.
"Pish! But you are mad," she scorned him. "Do you need ask if I intend to resist—I, with the strongest castle in Dauphiny? By God! sir, if you need to hear me say it, hear me then say that I shall resist him and as many as the Queen may send after him, for as long as one stone of Condillac shall stand upon another."
The Seneschal blew out his lips, and fell once more to the chewing of his beard.
"What did you mean when you said I could have given you no worse news than that of his coming alone?" she questioned suddenly.
"Madame," said he, "if this man comes without force, and you resist the orders of which he is the bearer, what think you will betide?"
"He will appeal to you for the men he needs that he may batter down my walls," she answered calmly.
He looked at her incredulously. "You realize it?" he ejaculated. "You realize it?"
"What is there in it that should puzzle a babe?"
Her callousness was like a gust of wind upon the living embers of his fears. It blew them into a blaze of wrath, sudden and terrific as that of such a man at bay could be. He advanced upon her with the rolling gait of the obese, his cheeks purple, his arms waving wildly, his dyed mustachios bristling.
"And what of me, madame?" he spluttered. "What of me? Am I to be ruined, gaoled, and hanged, maybe, for refusing him men?—for that is what is in your mind. Am I to make myself an outlaw? Am I, who have been Lord Seneschal of Dauphiny these fifteen years, to end my days in degradation in the cause of a woman's matrimonial projects for a simpering school-girl? Seigneur du Ciel!" he roared, "I think you are gone mad—mad, mad! over this affair. You would not think it too much to set the whole province in flames so that you could have your way with this wretched child. But, Ventregris! to ruin me—to—to—"
He fell silent for very want of words; just gaped and gasped, and then, with hands folded upon his paunch, he set himself to pace the chamber.
Madame de Condillac stood watching him, her face composed, her glance cold. She was like some stalwart oak, weathering with unshaken front a hurricane. When he had done, she moved away from the fireplace, and, beating her side gently with her whip, she stepped to the door.
"Au revoir, Monsieur de Tressan," said she, mighty cool, her back towards him.
At that he halted in his feverish stride, stood still and threw up his head. His anger went out, as a candle is extinguished by a puff of wind. And in its place a new fear crept into his heart.
"Madame, madame!" he cried. "Wait! Hear me."
She paused, half-turned, and looked at him over her shoulder, scorn in her glance, a sneer on her scarlet mouth, insolence in every line of her.
"I think, monsieur, that I have heard a little more than enough," said she. "I am assured, at least, that in you I have but a fair-weather friend, a poor lipserver."
"Ah, not that, madame," he cried, and his voice was stricken. "Say not that. I would serve you as would none other in all this world—you know it, Marquise; you know it."
She faced about, and confronted him, her smile a trifle broader, as if amusement were now blending with her scorn.
"It is easy to protest. Easy to say, 'I will die for you,' so long as the need for such a sacrifice be remote. But let me do no more than ask a favour, and it is, 'What of my good name, madame? What of my seneschalship? Am I to be gaoled or hanged to pleasure you?' Faugh!" she ended, with a toss of her splendid head. "The world is peopled with your kind, and I—alas! for a woman's intuitions—had held you different from the rest."
Her words were to his soul as a sword of fire might have been to his flesh. They scorched and shrivelled it. He saw himself as she would have him see himself—a mean, contemptible craven; a coward who made big talk in times of peace, but faced about and vanished into hiding at the first sign of danger. He felt himself the meanest, vilest thing a-crawl upon this sinful earth, and she—dear God!—had thought him different from the ruck. She had held him in high esteem, and behold, how short had he not fallen of all her expectations! Shame and vanity combined to work a sudden, sharp revulsion in his feelings.
"Marquise," he cried, "you say no more than what is just. But punish me no further. I meant not what I said. I was beside myself. Let me atone—let my future actions make amends for that odious departure from my true self."
There was no scorn now in her smile; only an ineffable tenderness, beholding which he felt it in his heart to hang if need be that he might continue high in her regard. He sprang forward, and took the hand she extended to him.
"I knew, Tressan," said she, "that you were not yourself, and that when you bethought you of what you had said, my valiant, faithful friend would not desert me."
He stooped over her hand, and slobbered kisses upon her unresponsive glove.
"Madame," said he, "you may count upon me. This fellow out of Paris shall have no men from me, depend upon it."
She caught him by the shoulders, and held him so, before her. Her face was radiant, alluring; and her eyes dwelt on his with a kindness he had never seen there save in some wild daydream of his.
"I will not refuse a service you offer me so gallantly," said she. "It were an ill thing to wound you by so refusing it."
"Marquise," he cried, "it is as nothing to what I would do did the occasion serve. But when this thing 'tis done; when you have had your way with Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye, and the nuptials shall have been celebrated, then—dare I hope—?"
He said no more in words, but his little blue eyes had an eloquence that left nothing to mere speech.
Their glances met, she holding him always at arm's length by that grip upon his shoulders, a grip that was firm and nervous.
In the Seneschal of Dauphiny, as she now gazed upon him, she beheld a very toad of a man, and the soul of her shuddered at the sight of him combining with the thing that he suggested. But her glance was steady and her lips maintained their smile, just as if that ugliness of his had been invested with some abstract beauty existing only to her gaze; a little colour crept into her cheeks, and red being the colour of love's livery, Tressan misread its meaning.
She nodded to him across the little distance of her outstretched arms, then smothered a laugh that drove him crazed with hope, and breaking from him she sped swiftly, shyly it almost seemed to him, to the door.
There she paused a moment looking back at him with a coyness that might have become a girl of half her years, yet which her splendid beauty saved from being unbecoming even in her.
One adorable smile she gave him, and before he could advance to hold the door for her, she had opened it and passed out.
CHAPTER II. MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE
To promise rashly, particularly where a woman is the suppliant, and afterwards, if not positively to repent the promise, at least to regret that one did not hedge it with a few conditions, is a proceeding not uncommon to youth. In a man of advanced age, such as Monsieur de Tressan, it never should have place; and, indeed, it seldom has, unless that man has come again under the sway of the influences by which youth, for good or ill, is governed.
Whilst the flush of his adoration was upon him, hot from the contact of her presence, he knew no repentance, found room in his mind for no regrets. He crossed to the window, and pressed his huge round face to the pane, in a futile effort to watch her mount and ride out of the courtyard with her little troop of attendants. Finding that he might not—the window being placed too high—gratify his wishes in that connection, he dropped into his chair, and sat in the fast-deepening gloom, reviewing, fondly here, hurriedly there, the interview that had but ended.
Thus night fell, and darkness settled down about him, relieved only by the red glow of the logs smouldering on the hearth. In the gloom inspiration visited him. He called for lights and Babylas. Both came, and he dispatched the lackey that lighted the tapers to summon Monsieur d'Aubran, the commander of the garrison of Grenoble.
In the interval before the soldier's coming he conferred with Babylas concerning what he had in mind, but he found his secretary singularly dull and unimaginative. So that, perforce, he must fall back upon himself. He sat glum and thoughtful, his mind in unproductive travail, until the captain was announced.
Still without any definite plan, he blundered headlong, nevertheless, into the necessary first step towards the fulfilment of his purpose.
"Captain," said he, looking mighty grave, "I have cause to believe that all is not as it should be in the hills in the district of Montelimar."
"Is there trouble, monsieur?" inquired the captain, startled.
"Maybe there is, maybe there is not," returned the Seneschal mysteriously. "You shall have your full orders in the morning. Meanwhile, make ready to repair to the neighbourhood of Montelimar to-morrow with a couple of hundred men."
"A couple of hundred, monsieur!" exclaimed d'Aubran. "But that will be to empty Grenoble of soldiers."
"What of it? We are not likely to require them here. Let your orders for preparation go round tonight, so that your knaves may be ready to set out betimes to-morrow. If you will be so good as to wait upon me early you shall have your instructions."
Mystified, Monsieur d'Aubran departed on his errand, and my Lord Seneschal went down to supper well pleased with the cunning device by which he was to leave Grenoble without a garrison. It was an astute way of escape from the awkward situation into which his attachment to the interests of the dowager of Condillac was likely to place him.
But when the morning came he was less pleased with the idea, chiefly because he had been unable to invent any details that should lend it the necessary colour, and d'Aubran—worse luck—was an intelligent officer who might evince a pardonable but embarrassing curiosity. A leader of soldiers has a right to know something at least of the enterprise upon which he leads them. By morning, too, Tressan found that the intervening space of the night, since he had seen Madame de Condillac, had cooled his ardour very considerably.
He had reached the incipient stages of regret of his rash promise.
When Captain d'Aubran was announced to him, he bade them ask him to come again in an hour's time. From mere regrets he was passing now, through dismay, into utter repentance of his promise. He sat in his study, at his littered writing-table, his head in his hands, a confusion of thoughts, a wild, frenzied striving after invention in his brain.
Thus Anselme found him when he thrust aside the portiere to announce that a Monsieur de Garnache, from Paris, was below, demanding to see the Lord Seneschal at once upon an affair of State.
Tressan's flesh trembled and his heart fainted. Then, suddenly, desperately, he took his courage in both hands. He remembered who he was and what he was the King's Lord Seneschal of the Province of Dauphiny. Throughout that province, from the Rhone to the Alps, his word was law, his name a terror to evildoers—and to some others besides. Was he to blench and tremble at the mention of the name of a Court lackey out of Paris, who brought him a message from the Queen-Regent? Body of God! not he.
He heaved himself to his feet, warmed and heartened by the thought; his eye sparkled, and there was a deeper flush than usual upon his cheek.
"Admit this Monsieur de Garnache," said he with a fine loftiness, and in his heart he pondered what he would say and how he should say it; how he should stand, how move, and how look. His roving eye caught sight of his secretary. He remembered something—the cherished pose of being a man plunged fathoms-deep in business. Sharply he uttered his secretary's name.
Babylas raised his pale face; he knew what was coming; it had come so many times before. But there was no vestige of a smile on his drooping lips, no gleam of amusement in his patient eye. He thrust aside the papers on which he was at work, and drew towards him a fresh sheet on which to pen the letter which, he knew by experience, Tressan was about to indite to the Queen-mother. For these purposes Her Majesty was Tressan's only correspondent.
Then the door opened, the portiere was swept aside, and Anselme announced "Monsieur de Garnache."
Tressan turned as the newcomer stepped briskly into the room, and bowed, hat in hand, its long crimson feather sweeping the ground, then straightened himself and permitted the Seneschal to take his measure.
Tressan beheld a man of a good height, broad to the waist and spare thence to the ground, who at first glance appeared to be mainly clad in leather. A buff jerkin fitted his body; below it there was a glimpse of wine-coloured trunks, and hose of a slightly deeper hue, which vanished immediately into a pair of huge thighboots of untanned leather. A leather swordbelt, gold-embroidered at the edges, carried a long steel-halted rapier in a leather scabbard chaped with steel. The sleeves of his doublet which protruded from his leather casing were of the same colour and material as his trunks. In one hand he carried his broad black hat with its crimson feather, in the other a little roll of parchment; and when he moved the creak of leather and jingle of his spurs made pleasant music for a martial spirit.
Above all, this man's head, well set upon his shoulders, claimed some attention. His nose was hooked and rather large, his eyes were blue, bright as steel, and set a trifle wide. Above a thin-lapped, delicate mouth his reddish mustachios, slightly streaked with grey, stood out, bristling like a cat's. His hair was darker—almost brown save at the temples, where age had faded it to an ashen colour. In general his aspect was one of rugged strength.
The Seneschal, measuring him with an adversary's eye, misliked his looks. But he bowed urbanely, washing his hands in the air, and murmuring:
"Your servant, Monsieur de—?"
"Garnache," came the other's crisp, metallic voice, and the name had a sound as of an oath on his lips. "Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache. I come to you on an errand of Her Majesty's, as this my warrant will apprise you." And he proffered the paper he held, which Tressan accepted from his hand.
A change was visible in the wily Seneschal's fat countenance. Its round expanse had expressed interrogation until now; but at the Parisian's announcement that he was an emissary of the Queen's, Tressan insinuated into it just that look of surprise and of increased deference which would have been natural had he not already been forewarned of Monsieur de Garnache's mission and identity.
He placed a chair at his visitor's disposal, himself resuming his seat at his writing-table, and unfolding the paper Garnache had given him. The newcomer seated himself, hitched his sword-belt round so that he could lean both hands upon the hilt, and sat, stiff and immovable, awaiting the Lord Seneschal's pleasure. From his desk across the room the secretary, idly chewing the feathered end of his goose-quill, took silent stock of the man from Paris, and wondered.
Tressan folded the paper carefully, and returned it to its owner. It was no more than a formal credential, setting forth that Garnache was travelling into Dauphiny on a State affair, and commanding Monsieur de Tressan to give him every assistance he might require in the performance of his errand.
"Parfaitement," purred the Lord Seneschal. "And now, monsieur, if you will communicate to me the nature of your affair, you shall find me entirely at your service."
"It goes without saying that you are acquainted with the Chateau de Condillac?" began Garnache, plunging straight into business.
"Perfectly." The Seneschal leaned back, and was concerned to feel his pulses throbbing a shade too quickly. But he controlled his features, and maintained a placid, bland expression.
"You are perhaps acquainted with its inhabitants?"
"Intimate with them?"
The Seneschal pursed his lips, arched his brows, and slowly waved his podgy hands, a combination of grimace and gesture that said much or nothing. But reflecting that Monsieur de Tressan had a tongue, Garnache apparently did not opine it worth his while to set a strain upon his own imagination, for—
"Intimate with them?" he repeated, and this time there was a sharper note in his voice.
Tressan leaned forward and brought his finger-tips together. His voice was as urbane as it lay within its power to be.
"I understood that monsieur was proposing to state his business, not to question mine."
Garnache sat back in his chair, and his eyes narrowed. He scented opposition, and the greatest stumbling-block in Garnache's career had been that he could never learn to brook opposition from any man. That characteristic, evinced early in life, had all but been the ruin of him. He was a man of high intellectual gifts, of military skill and great resource; out of consideration for which had he been chosen by Marie de Medicis to come upon this errand. But he marred it all by a temper so ungovernable that in Paris there was current a byword, "Explosive as Garnache."
Little did Tressan dream to what a cask of gunpowder he was applying the match of his smug pertness. Nor did Garnache let him dream it just yet. He controlled himself betimes, bethinking him that, after all, there might be some reason in what this fat fellow said.
"You misapprehend my purpose, sir," said he, his lean brown hand stroking his long chin. "I but sought to learn how far already you may be informed of what is taking place up there, to the end that I may spare myself the pains of citing facts with which already you are acquainted. Still, monsieur, I am willing to proceed upon the lines which would appear to be more agreeable to yourself.
"This, then, is the sum of the affair that brings me: The late Marquis de Condillac left two sons. The elder, Florimond—who is the present marquis, and who has been and still continues absent, warring in Italy, since before his father's death—is the stepson of the present Dowager, she being the mother of the younger son, Marius de Condillac.
"Should you observe me to be anywhere at error, I beg, monsieur, that you will have the complaisance to correct me."
The Seneschal bowed gravely, and Monsieur de Garnache continued:
"Now this younger son—I believe that he is in his twenty-first year at present—has been something of a scapegrace."
"A scapegrace? Bon Dieu, no. That is a harsh name to give him. A little indiscreet at times, a little rash, as is the way of youth."
He would have said more, but the man from Paris was of no mind to waste time on quibbles.
"Very well," he snapped, cutting in. "We will say, a little indiscreet. My errand is not concerned with Monsieur Marius's morals or with his lack of them. These indiscretions which you belittle appear to have been enough to have estranged him from his father, a circumstance which but served the more to endear him to his mother. I am told that she is a very handsome woman, and that the boy favours her surprisingly."
"Ah!" sighed the Seneschal in a rapture. "A beautiful woman—a noble, splendid woman.'
"Hum!" Garnache observed the ecstatic simper with a grim eye. Then he proceeded with his story.
"The late marquis possessed in his neighbour, the also deceased Monsieur de La Vauvraye, a very dear and valued friend. Monsieur de La Vauvraye had an only child, a daughter, to inherit his very considerable estates probably the wealthiest in all Dauphiny, so I am informed. It was the dearest wish of his heart to transform what had been a lifelong friendship in his own generation into a closer relationship in the next—a wish that found a very ready echo in the heart of Monsieur de Condillac. Florimond de Condillac was sixteen years of age at the time, and Valerie de La Vauvraye fourteen. For all their tender years, they were betrothed, and they grew up to love each other and to look forward to the consummation of the plans their fathers had laid for them."
"Monsieur, monsieur," the Seneschal protested, "how can you possibly infer so much? How can you say that they loved each other? What authority can you have for pretending to know what was in their inmost hearts?"
"The authority of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye," was the unanswerable rejoinder. "I am telling you, more or less, what she herself wrote to the Queen."
"Ah! Well, well—proceed, monsieur."
"This marriage should render Florimond de Condillac the wealthiest and most powerful gentleman in Dauphiny—one of the wealthiest in France; and the idea of it pleased the old marquis, inasmuch as the disparity there would be between the worldly possessions of his two sons would serve to mark his disapproval of the younger. But before settling down, Florimond signified a desire to see the world, as was fit and proper and becoming in a young man who was later to assume such wide responsibilities. His father, realizing the wisdom of such a step, made but slight objection, and at the age of twenty Florimond set out for the Italian wars. Two years afterwards, a little over six months ago, his father died, and was followed to the grave some weeks later by Monsieur de La Vauvraye. The latter, with a want of foresight which has given rise to the present trouble, misjudging the character of the Dowager of Condillac, entrusted to her care his daughter Valerie pending Florimond's return, when the nuptials would naturally be immediately celebrated. I am probably telling you no more than you already know. But you owe the infliction to your own unwillingness to answer my questions."
"No, no, monsieur; I assure you that in what you say there is much that is entirely new to me."
"I rejoice to hear it, Monsieur de Tressan," said Garnache very seriously, "for had you been in possession of all these facts, Her Majesty might have a right to learn how it chanced that you had nowise interfered in what is toward at Condillac.
"But to proceed: Madame de Condillac and her precious Benjamin—this Marius—finding themselves, in Florimond's absence, masters of the situation, have set about turning it to their own best advantage. Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye, whilst being nominally under their guardianship, finds herself practically gaoled by them, and odious plans are set before her to marry Marius. Could the Dowager but accomplish this, it would seem that she would not only be assuring a future of ease and dignity for her son, but also be giving vent to all her pent-up hatred of her stepson.
"Mademoiselle, however, withstands them, and in this she is aided by a fortuitous circumstance which has arisen out of the overbearing arrogance that appears to be madame's chief characteristic. Condillac after the marquis's death had refused to pay tithes to Mother Church and has flouted and insulted the Bishop. This prelate, after finding remonstrance vain, has retorted by placing Condillac under an Interdict, depriving all within it of the benefit of clergy. Thus, they have been unable to find a priest to venture thither, so that even had they willed to marry mademoiselle by force to Marius, they lacked the actual means of doing so.
"Florimond continues absent. We have every reason to believe that he has been left in ignorance of his father's death. Letters coming from him from time to time prove that he was alive and well at least until three months ago. A messenger has been dispatched to find him and urge him to return home at once. But pending his arrival the Queen has determined to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye shall be released from her captivity, that she shall suffer no further molestation at the hands of Madame de Condillac and her son—enfin, that she shall run no further risks.
"My errand, monsieur, is to acquaint you with these facts, and to request you to proceed to Condillac and deliver thence Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye, whom I am subsequently to escort to Paris and place under Her Majesty's protection until such time as the new marquis shall return to claim her."
Having concluded, Monsieur de Garnache sat back in his chair, and threw one leg over the other, fixing his eyes upon the Seneschal's face and awaiting his reply.
On that gross countenance before him he saw fall the shadow of perplexity. Tressan was monstrous ill-at-ease, and his face lost a good deal of its habitual plethora of colour. He sought to temporize.
"Does it not occur to you, monsieur, that perhaps too much importance may have been attached to the word of this child—this Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye?"
"Does it occur to you that such has been the case, that she has overstated it?" counter-questioned Monsieur de Garnache.
"No, no. I do not say that. But—but—would it not be better—more—ah—satisfactory to all concerned, if you yourself were to go to Condillac, and deliver your message in person, demanding mademoiselle?"
The man from Paris looked at him a moment, then stood up suddenly, and shifted the carriages of his sword back to their normal position. His brows came together in a frown, from which the Seneschal argued that his suggestion was not well received.
"Monsieur," said the Parisian very coldly, like a man who contains a rising anger, "let me tell you that this is the first time in my life that I have been concerned in anything that had to do with women and I am close upon forty years of age. The task, I can assure you, was little to my taste. I embarked upon it because, being a soldier and having received my orders, I was in the unfortunate position of being unable to help myself. But I intend, monsieur, to adhere rigidly to the letter of these commands. Already I have endured more than enough in the interests of this damsel. I have ridden from Paris, and that means close upon a week in the saddle—no little thing to a man who has acquired certain habits of life and developed a taste for certain minor comforts which he is very reluctant to forgo. I have fed and slept at inns, living on the worst of fares and sleeping on the hardest, and hardly the cleanest, of beds. Ventregris! Figure to yourself that last night we lay at Luzan, in the only inn the place contained—a hovel, Monsieur le Seneschal, a hovel in which I would not kennel a dog I loved."
His face flushed, and his voice rose as he dwelt upon the things he had undergone.
"My servant and I slept in a dormitory'—a thousand devils! monsieur, in a dormitory! Do you realize it? We had for company a drunken vintner, a pedlar, a pilgrim on his way to Rome, and two peasant women; and they sent us to bed without candles, for modesty's sake. I ask you to conceive my feelings in such a case as that. I could tell you more; but that as a sample of what I have undergone could scarcely be surpassed."
"Truly-truly outrageous," sympathized the Seneschal; yet he grinned.
"I ask you—have I not suffered inconvenience enough already in the service of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye that you can blame me if I refuse to go a single step further than my orders bid me?"
The Seneschal stared at him now in increasing dismay. Had his own interests been less at issue he could have indulged his mirth at the other's fiery indignation at the inconveniences he recited. As it was, he had nothing to say; no thought or feeling other than what concerned finding a way of escape from the net that seemed to be closing in about him—how to seem to serve the Queen without turning against the Dowager of Condillac; how to seem to serve the Dowager without opposing the wishes of the Queen.
"A plague on the girl!" he growled, unconsciously uttering his thoughts aloud. "The devil take her!"
Garnache smiled grimly. "That is a bond of sympathy between us," said he. "I have said those very words a hundred times—a thousand times, indeed—between Paris and Grenoble. Yet I scarcely see that you can damn her with as much justice as can I.
"But there, monsieur; all this is unprofitable. You have my message. I shall spend the day at Grenoble, and take a well-earned rest. By this time to-morrow I shall be ready to start upon my return journey. I shall have then the honour to wait upon you again, to the end that I may receive from you the charge of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. I shall count upon your having her here, in readiness to set out with me, by noon to-morrow."
He bowed, with a flourish of his plumed hat, and would with that have taken his departure but that the Seneschal stayed him.
"Monsieur, monsieur," he cried, in piteous affright, "you do not know the Dowager of Condillac."
"Why, no. What of it?"
"What of it? Did you know her, you would understand that she is not the woman to be driven. I may order her in the Queen's name to deliver up Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. But she will withstand me."
"Withstand you?" echoed Garnache, frowning into the face of this fat man, who had risen also, brought to his feet by excitement. "Withstand you—you, the Lord Seneschal of Dauphiny? You are amusing yourself at my expense."
"But I tell you that she will," the other insisted in a passion. "You may look for the girl in vain tomorrow unless you go to Condillac yourself and take her."
Garnache drew himself up and delivered his answer in a tone that was final.
"You are the governor of the province, monsieur, and in this matter you have in addition the Queen's particular authority—nay, her commands are imposed upon you. Those commands, as interpreted by me, you will execute in the manner I have indicated."
The Seneschal shrugged his shoulders, and chewed a second at his beard.
"It is an easy thing for you to tell me what to do. Tell me, rather, how to do it, how to overcome her opposition."
"You are very sure of opposition—strangely sure, monsieur," said Garnache, looking him between the eyes. "In any case, you have soldiers."
"And so has she, and the strongest castle in southern France—to say nothing of the most cursed obstinacy in the world. What she says, she does."
"And what the Queen says her loyal servants do," was Garnache's rejoinder, in a withering tone. "I think there is nothing more to be said, monsieur," he added. "By this time to-morrow I shall expect to receive from you, here, the charge of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. A demain, donc, Monsieur le Seneschal."
And with another bow the man from Paris drew himself erect, turned on his heel, and went jingling and creaking from the room.
The Lord Seneschal sank back in his chair, and wondered to himself whether to die might not prove an easy way out of the horrid situation into which chance and his ill-starred tenderness for the Dowager of Condillac had thrust him.
At his desk sat his secretary, who had been a witness of the interview, lost in wonder almost as great as the Seneschal's own.
For an hour Tressan remained where he was, deep in thought and gnawing at his beard. Then with a sudden burst of passion, expressed in a round oath or two, he rose, and called for his horse that he might ride to Condillac.
CHAPTER III. THE DOWAGER'S COMPLIANCE
Promptly at noon on the morrow Monsieur de Garnache presented himself once more at the Seneschal's palace, and with him went Rabecque, his body-servant, a lean, swarthy, sharp-faced man, a trifle younger than his master.
Anselme, the obese master of the household, received them with profound respect, and at once conducted Garnache to Monsieur de Tressan's presence.
On the stairs they met Captain d'Aubran, who was descending. The captain was not in the best of humours. For four-and-twenty hours he had kept two hundred of his men under arms, ready to march as soon as he should receive his orders from the Lord Seneschal, yet those instructions were not forthcoming. He had been to seek them again that morning, only to be again put off.
Monsieur de Garnache had considerable doubt, born of his yesterday's interview with the Seneschal, that Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye would be delivered into his charge as he had stipulated. His relief was, therefore, considerable, upon being ushered into Tressan's presence, to find a lady in cloak and hat, dressed as for a journey, seated in a chair by the great fireplace.
Tressan advanced to meet him, a smile of cordial welcome on his lips, and they bowed to each other in formal greeting.
"You see, monsieur," said the Seneschal, waving a plump hand in the direction of the lady, "that you have been obeyed. Here is your charge."
Then to the lady: "This is Monsieur de Garnache," he announced, "of whom I have already told you, who is to conduct you to Paris by order of Her Majesty.
"And now, my good friends, however great the pleasure I derive from your company, I care not how soon you set out, for I have some prodigious arrears of work upon my hands."
Garnache bowed to the lady, who returned his greeting by an inclination of the head, and his keen eyes played briskly over her. She was a plump-faced, insipid child, with fair hair and pale blue eyes, stolid and bovine in their expressionlessness.
"I am quite ready, monsieur," said she, rising as she spoke, and gathering her cloak about her; and Garnache remarked that her voice had the southern drawl, her words the faintest suggestion of a patois. It was amazing how a lady born and bred could degenerate in the rusticity of Dauphiny. Pigs and cows, he made no doubt, had been her chief objectives. Yet, even so, he thought he might have expected that she would have had more to say to him than just those five words expressing her readiness to depart. He had looked for some acknowledgment of satisfaction at his presence, some utterances of gratitude either to himself or to the Queen-Regent for the promptness with which she had been succoured. He was disappointed, but he showed nothing of it, as with a simple inclination of the head—
"Good!" said he. "Since you are ready and Monsieur le Seneschal is anxious to be rid of us, let us by all means be moving. You have a long and tedious journey before you, mademoiselle."
"I—I am prepared for that," she faltered.
He stood aside, and bending from the waist he made a sweeping gesture towards the door with the hand that held his hat. To the invitation to precede him she readily responded, and, with a bow to the Seneschal, she began to walk across the apartment.
Garnache's eyes, narrowing slightly, followed her, like points of steel. Suddenly he shot a disturbing glance at Tressan's face, and the corner of his wild-cat mustachios twitched. He stood erect, and called her very sharply.
She stopped, and turned to face him, an incredible shyness seeming to cause her to avoid his gaze.
"You have, no doubt, Monsieur le Seneschal's word for my identity. But I think it is as well that you should satisfy yourself. Before placing yourself entirely in my care, as you are about to do, you would be well advised to assure yourself, that I am indeed Her Majesty's emissary. Will you be good enough to glance at this?"
He drew forth as he spoke the letter in the queen's own hand, turned it upside down, and so presented it to her. The Seneschal looked on stolidly, a few paces distant.
"But certainly, mademoiselle, assure yourself that this gentleman is no other than I have told you."
Thus enjoined, she took the letter; for a second her eyes met Garnache's glittering gaze, and she shivered. Then she bent her glance to the writing, and studied it a moment, what time the man from Paris watched her closely.
Presently she handed it back to him.
"Thank you, monsieur," was all she said.
"You are satisfied that it is in order, mademoiselle?" he inquired, and a note of mockery too subtle for her or the Seneschal ran through his question.
"I am quite satisfied."
Garnache turned to Tressan. His eyes were smiling, but unpleasantly, and in his voice when he spoke there was something akin to the distant rumble that heralds an approaching storm.
"Mademoiselle," said he, "has received an eccentric education."
"Eh?" quoth Tressan, perplexed.
"I have heard tell, monsieur, of a people somewhere in the East who read and write from right to left; but never yet have I heard tell of any—particularly in France—so oddly schooled as to do their reading upside down."
Tressan caught the drift of the other's meaning. He paled a little, and sucked his lip, his eyes wandering to the girl, who stood in stolid inapprehension of what was being said.
"Did she do that?" said he, and he scarcely knew what he was saying; all that he realized was that it urged him to explain this thing. "Mademoiselle's education has been neglected—a by no means uncommon happening in these parts. She is sensitive of it; she seeks to hide the fact."
Then the storm broke about their heads. And it crashed and thundered awfully in the next few minutes.
"O liar! O damned, audacious liar," roared Garnache uncompromisingly, advancing a step upon the Seneschal, and shaking the parchment threateningly in his very face, as though it were become a weapon of offence. "Was it to hide the fact that she had not been taught to write that she sent the Queen a letter pages-long? Who is this woman?" And the finger he pointed at the girl quivered with the rage that filled him at this trick they had thought to put upon him.
Tressan sought refuge in offended dignity. He drew himself up, threw back his head, and looked the Parisian fiercely in the eye.
"Since you take this tone with me, monsieur—"
"I take with you—as with any man—the tone that to me seems best. You miserable fool! As sure as you're a rogue this affair shall cost you your position. You have waxed fat and sleek in your seneschalship; this easy life in Dauphiny appears to have been well suited to your health. But as your paunch has grown, so, of a truth, have your brains dwindled, else had you never thought to cheat me quite so easily.
"Am I some lout who has spent his days herding swine, think you, that you could trick me into believing this creature to be Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye—this creature with the mien of a peasant, with a breath reeking of garlic like a third-rate eating-house, and the walk of a woman who has never known footgear until this moment? Tell me, sir, for what manner of fool did you take me?"
The Seneschal stood with blanched face and gaping mouth, his fire all turned to ashes before the passion of this gaunt man.
Garnache paid no heed to him. He stepped to the girl, and roughly raised her chin with his hand so that she was forced to look him in the face.
"What is your name, wench?" he asked her.
"Margot," she blubbered, bursting into tears.
He dropped her chin, and turned away with a gesture of disgust.
"Get you gone," he bade her harshly. "Get you back to the kitchen or the onion-field from which they took you."
And the girl, scarce believing her good fortune, departed with a speed that bordered on the ludicrous. Tressan had naught to say, no word to stay her with; pretence, he realized, was vain.
"Now, my Lord Seneschal," quoth Garnache, arms akimbo, feet planted wide, and eyes upon the wretched man's countenance, "what may you have to say to me?"
Tressan shifted his position; he avoided the other's glance; he was visibly trembling, and when presently he spoke it was in faltering accents.
"It—it—seems, monsieur, that—ah—that I have been the victim of some imposture."
"It had rather seemed to me that the victim chosen was myself."
"Clearly we were both victims," the Seneschal rejoined. Then he proceeded to explain. "I went to Condillac yesterday as you desired me, and after a stormy interview with the Marquise I obtained from her—as I believed—the person of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. You see I was not myself acquainted with the lady."
Garnache looked at him. He did not believe him. He regretted almost that he had not further questioned the girl. But, after all, perhaps it might be easier and more expedient if he were to appear to accept the Seneschal's statement. But he must provide against further fraud.
"Monsieur le Seneschal," said he in calmer tones, putting his anger from him, "at the best you are a blunderer and an ass, at the worst a traitor. I will inquire no further at present; I'll not seek to discriminate too finely."
"Monsieur, these insults—" began the Seneschal, summoning dignity to his aid. But Garnache broke in:
"La, la! I speak in the Queen's name. If you have thought to aid the Dowager of Condillac in this resistance of Her Majesty's mandate, let me enjoin you, as you value your seneschalship—as you value your very neck—to harbour that thought no longer.
"It seems that, after all, I must deal myself with the situation. I must go myself to Condillac. If they should resist me, I shall look to you for the necessary means to overcome that resistance.
"And bear you this in mind: I have chosen to leave it an open question whether you were a party to the trick it has been sought to put upon the Queen, through me, her representative. But it is a question that I have it in my power to resolve at any moment—to resolve as I choose. Unless, monsieur, I find you hereafter—as I trust—actuated by the most unswerving loyalty, I shall resolve that question by proclaiming you a traitor; and as a traitor I shall arrest you and carry you to Paris. Monsieur le Seneschal, I have the honour to give you good-day!"
When he was gone, Monsieur de Tressan flung off his wig, and mopped the perspiration from his brow. He went white as snow and red as fire by turns, as he paced the apartment in a frenzy. Never in the fifteen years that were sped since he had been raised to the governorship of the province had any man taken such a tone with him and harangued him in such terms.
A liar and a traitor had he been called that morning, a knave and a fool; he had been browbeaten and threatened; and he had swallowed it all, and almost turned to lick the hand that administered the dose. Dame! What manner of cur was he become? And the man who had done all this—a vulgar upstart out of Paris, reeking of leather and the barrack-room still lived!
Bloodshed was in his mind; murder beckoned him alluringly to take her as his ally. But he put the thought from him, frenzied though he might be. He must fight this knave with other weapons; frustrate his mission, and send him back to Paris and the Queen's scorn, beaten and empty-handed.
"Babylas's!" he shouted.
Immediately the secretary appeared.
"Have you given thought to the matter of Captain d'Aubran?" he asked, his voice an impatient snarl.
"Yes, monsieur, I have pondered it all morning."
"Well? And what have you concluded?"
"Helas! monsieur, nothing."
Tressan smote the table before him a blow that shook some of the dust out of the papers that cumbered it. "Ventregris! How am I served? For what do I pay you, and feed you, and house you, good-for-naught, if you are to fail me whenever I need the things you call your brains? Have you no intelligence, no thought, no imagination? Can you invent no plausible business, no likely rising, no possible disturbances that shall justify my sending Aubran and his men to Montelimar—to the very devil, if need be."
The secretary trembled in his every limb; his eyes shunned his master's as his master's had shunned Garnache's awhile ago. The Seneschal was enjoying himself. If he had been bullied and browbeaten, here, at least, was one upon whom he, in his turn, might taste the joys of bullying and browbeating.
"You lazy, miserable calf," he stormed, "I might be better served by a wooden image. Go! It seems I must rely upon myself. It is always so. Wait!" he thundered; for the secretary, only too glad to obey his last order, had already reached the door. "Tell Anselme to bid the Captain attend me here at once."
Babylas's bowed and went his errand.
A certain amount of his ill-humour vented, Tressan made an effort to regain his self-control. He passed his handkerchief for the last time over face and head, and resumed his wig.
When d'Aubran entered, the Seneschal was composed and in his wonted habit of ponderous dignity. "Ah, d'Aubran," said he, "your men are ready?"
"They have been ready these four-and-twenty hours, monsieur."
"Good. You are a brisk soldier, d'Aubran. You are a man to be relied upon."
D'Aubran bowed. He was a tall, active young fellow with a pleasant face and a pair of fine black eyes.
"Monsieur le Seneschal is very good."
With a wave of the hand the Seneschal belittled his own goodness.
"You will march out of Grenoble within the hour, Captain, and you will lead your men to Montelimar. There you will quarter them, and await my further orders. Babylas will give you a letter to the authorities, charging them to find you suitable quarters. While there, d'Aubran, and until my further orders reach you, you will employ your time in probing the feeling in the hill district. You understand?"
"Imperfectly," d'Aubran confessed.
"You will understand better when you have been in Montelimar a week or so. It may, of course, be a false alarm. Still, we must safeguard the King's interests and be prepared. Perhaps we may afterwards be charged with starting at shadows; but it is better to be on the alert from the moment the shadow is perceived than to wait until the substance itself has overwhelmed us."
It sounded so very much as if the Seneschal's words really had some hidden meaning, that d'Aubran, if not content with going upon an errand of which he knew so little, was, at least, reconciled to obey the orders he received. He uttered words that conveyed some such idea to Tressan's mind, and within a half-hour he was marching out of Grenoble with beating drums, on his two days' journey to Montelimar.
CHAPTER IV. THE CHATEAU DE CONDILLAC
As Captain d'Aubran and his troop were speeding westwards from Grenoble, Monsieur de Garnache, ever attended by his man, rode briskly in the opposite direction, towards the grey towers of Condillac, that reared themselves towards the greyer sky above the valley of the Isere. It was a chill, dull, autumnal day, with a raw wind blowing from the Alps; its breath was damp, and foretold of the rain that was likely to come anon, the rain with which the clouds hanging low about the distant hills were pregnant.
But Monsieur de Garnache was totally insensible to his surroundings; his mind was very busy with the interview from which he had come, and the interview to which he was speeding. Once he permitted himself a digression, that he might point a moral for the benefit of his servant.
"You see, Rebecque, what a plague it is to have to do with women. Are you sufficiently grateful to me for having quelled your matrimonial ardour of two months ago? No, you are not. Grateful you may be; sufficiently grateful, never; it would be impossible. No gratitude could be commensurate with the benefit I conferred upon you. Yet if you had married, and discovered for yourself the troubles that come from too close an association with that sex which some wag of old ironically called the weaker, and of which contemporary fools with no sense of irony continue so to speak in good faith, you could have blamed only yourself. You would have shrugged your shoulders and made the best of it, realizing that no other man had put this wrong upon you. But with me—thousand devils!—it is very different. I am a man who, in one particular at least, has chosen his way of life with care; I have seen to it that I should walk a road unencumbered by any petticoat. What happens? What comes of all my careful plans?
"Fate sends an infernal cut-throat to murder our good king—whose soul God rest eternally! And since his son is of an age too tender to wield the sceptre, the boy's mother does it in his name. Thus, I, a soldier, being subject to the head of the State, find myself, by no devising of my own, subject to a woman.
"In itself that is bad enough. Too bad, indeed—Ventregris!—too bad. Yet Fate is not content. It must occur to this woman to select me—me of all men—to journey into Dauphiny, and release another woman from the clutches of yet a third. And to what shifts are we not put, to what discomforts not subjected? You know them, Rabecque, for you have shared them with me. But it begins to break upon my mind that what we have endured may be as nothing to what may lie before us. It is an ill thing to have to do with women. Yet you, Rabecque, would have deserted me for one of them!"
Rabecque was silent. Maybe he was ashamed of himself; or maybe that, not agreeing with his master, he had yet sufficient appreciation of his position to be discreetly silent where his opinions might be at variance. Thus Garnache was encouraged to continue.
"And what is all this trouble about, which they have sent me to set right? About a marriage. There is a girl wants to marry one man, and a woman who wants to marry her to another. Ponder the possibilities of tragedy in such a situation. Half this world's upheavals have had their source in less. Yet you, Rabecque, would have married!"
Necessity at last turned his discourse to other matters.
"Tell me, now," said he abruptly, in a different tone, "is there hereabouts a ford?"
"There is a bridge up yonder, monsieur," returned the servant, thankful to have the conversation changed.
They rode towards it in silence, Garnache's eyes set now upon the grey pile that crowned the hillock, a half-mile away, on the opposite bank of the stream. They crossed the bridge and rode up the gently rising, bare, and rugged ground towards Condillac. The place wore an entirely peaceful air, strong and massive though it appeared. It was encircled by a ditch, but the drawbridge was down, and the rust on its chains argued that long had it been so.
None coming to challenge them, the pair rode across the planks, and the dull thud of their hooves started into activity some one in the gatehouse.
A fellow rudely clad—a hybrid between man-at-arms and lackey—lounged on a musket to confront them in the gateway. Monsieur de Garnache announced his name, adding that he came to crave an audience of Madame la Marquise, and the man stood aside to admit him. Thus he and Rabecque rode forward into the roughly paved courtyard.
From several doorways other men emerged, some of martial bearing, showing that the place was garrisoned to some extent. Garnache took little heed of them. He flung his reins to the man whom he had first addressed—the fellow had kept pace beside him—and leapt nimbly to the ground, bidding Rabecque await him there.
The soldier lackey resigned the reins to Rabecque, and requested Monsieur de Garnache to follow him. He led the way through a door on the left, down a passage and across an anteroom, and ushered the visitor finally into a spacious, gloomy hall, panelled in black oak and lighted as much by the piled-up fire that flared on the noble hearth as by the grey daylight that filtered through the tall mullioned windows.
As they entered, a liver-coloured hound that lay stretched before the fire growled lazily, and showed the whites of his eyes. Paying little attention to the dog, Garnache looked about him. The apartment was handsome beyond praise, in a sombre, noble fashion. It was hung with pictures of departed Condillacs—some of them rudely wrought enough—with trophies of ancient armour, and with implements of the chase. In the centre stood an oblong table of black oak, very richly carved about its massive legs, and in a china bowl, on this, an armful of late roses filled the room with their sweet fragrance.
Then Garnache espied a page on the window-seat, industriously burnishing a cuirass. He pursued his task, indifferent to the newcomer's advent, until the knave who had conducted thither the Parisian called the boy and bade him go tell the Marquise that a Monsieur de Garnache, with a message from the Queen-Regent, begged an audience.
The boy rose, and simultaneously, out of a great chair by the hearth, whose tall back had hitherto concealed him, there rose another figure. This was a stripling of some twenty summers—twenty-one, in fact—of a pale, beautifully featured face, black hair and fine black eyes, and very sumptuously clad in a suit of shimmering silk whose colour shifted from green to purple as he moved.
Monsieur de Garnache assumed that he was in the presence of Marius de Condillac. He bowed a trifle stiffly, and was surprised to have his bow returned with a graciousness that amounted almost to cordiality.
"You are from Paris, monsieur?" said the young man, in a gentle, pleasant voice. "I fear you have had indifferent weather for your journey."
Garnache thought of other things besides the weather that he had found indifferent, and he felt warmed almost to the point of anger at the very recollection. But he bowed again, and answered amiably enough.
The young man offered him a seat, assuring him that his mother would not keep him waiting long. The page had already gone upon his errand.
Garnache took the proffered chair, and sank down with creak and jingle to warm himself at the fire.
"From what you have said, I gather that you are Monsieur Marius de Condillac," said he. "I, as you may have heard me announced by your servant, am Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache—at your service."
"We have heard of you, Monsieur de Garnache," said the youth as he crossed his shapely legs of silken violet, and fingered the great pearl that depended from his ear. "But we had thought that by now you would be on your way to Paris."
"No doubt—with Margot," was the grim rejoinder.
But Marius either gathered no suggestion from its grimness, or did not know the name Garnache uttered, for he continued:
"We understood that you were to escort Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye to Paris, to place her under the tutelage of the Queen-Regent. I will not conceal from you that we were chagrined at the reflection cast upon Condillac; nevertheless, Her Majesty's word is law in Dauphiny as much as it is in Paris."
"Quite as much, and I am relieved to hear you confess it," said Garnache drily, and he scanned more closely the face of this young man. He found cause to modify the excellent impression he had received at first. Marius's eyebrows were finely pencilled, but they arched a shade too much, and his eyes were set a trifle too closely; the mouth, which had seemed beautiful at first, looked, in addition, on this closer inspection, weak, sensual, and cruel.
There fell upon the momentary silence the sound of an opening door, and both men rose simultaneously to their feet.
In the splendid woman that entered, Monsieur de Garnache saw a wonderful likeness to the boy who stood beside him. She received the emissary very graciously. Marius set a chair for her between the two they had been occupying, and thus interchanging phrases of agreeable greeting the three sat down about the hearth with every show of the greatest amity.
A younger man might have been put out of countenance; the woman's surpassing beauty, her charm of manner, her melodious voice, falling on the ear soft and gentle as a caress, might have turned a man of less firmness a little from his purpose, a little perhaps from his loyalty and the duty that had brought him all the way from Paris. But Monsieur de Garnache was to her thousand graces as insensible as a man of stone. And he came to business briskly. He had no mind to spend the day at her fireside in pleasant, meaningless talk.
"Madame," said he, "monsieur your son informs me that you have heard of me and of the business that brings me into Dauphiny. I had not looked for the honour of journeying quite so far as Condillac; but since Monsieur de Tressan, whom I made my ambassador, appears to have failed so signally, I am constrained to inflict my presence upon you."
"Inflict?" quoth she, with a pretty look of make-believe dismay. "How harsh a word, monsieur!"
The smoothness of the implied compliment annoyed him.
"I will use any word you think more adequate, madame, if you will suggest it," he answered tartly.
"There are a dozen I might suggest that would better fit the case—and with more justice to yourself," she answered, with a smile that revealed a gleam of white teeth behind her scarlet lips. "Marcus, bid Benoit bring wine. Monsieur de Garnache will no doubt be thirsting after his ride."
Garnache said nothing. Acknowledge the courtesy he would not; refuse it he could not. So he sat, and waited for her to speak, his eyes upon the fire.
Madame had already set herself a course. Keener witted than her son, she had readily understood, upon Garnache's being announced to her, that his visit meant the failure of the imposture by which she had sought to be rid of him.
"I think, monsieur," she said presently, watching him from under her lids, "that we have, all of us who are concerned in Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's affairs, been at cross-purposes. She is an impetuous, impulsive child, and it happened that some little time ago we had words—such things will happen in the most united families. Whilst the heat of her foolish anger was upon her, she wrote a letter to the Queen, in which she desired to be removed from my tutelage. Since then, monsieur, she has come to repent her of it. You, who no doubt understand a woman's mind—"
"Set out upon no such presumption, madame," he interrupted. "I know as little of a woman's mind as any man who thinks he knows a deal—and that is nothing."
She laughed as at an excellent jest, and Marius, overhearing Garnache's retort as he was returning to resume his seat, joined in her laugh.
"Paris is a fine whetstone for a man's wits," said he.
Garnache shrugged his shoulders.
"I take it, madame, that you wish me to understand that Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye, repenting of her letter, desires no longer to repair to Paris; desires, in fact, to remain here at Condillac in your excellent care."
"You apprehend the position exactly, monsieur."
"To my mind," said he, "it presents few features difficult of apprehension."
Marius's eyes flashed his mother a look of relief; but the Marquise, who had an ear more finely trained, caught the vibration of a second meaning in the emissary's words.
"All being as you say, madame," he continued, "will you tell me why, instead of some message to this purport, you sent Monsieur de Tressan back to me with a girl taken from some kitchen or barnyard, whom it was sought to pass off upon me as Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye?"
The Marquise laughed, and her son, who had shown signs of perturbation, taking his cue from her, laughed too.
"It was a jest, monsieur"—she told him, miserably conscious that the explanation could sound no lamer.
"My compliments, madame, upon the humour that prevails in Dauphiny. But your jest failed of its purpose. It did not amuse me, nor, so far as I could discern, was Monsieur de Tressan greatly taken with it. But all this is of little moment, madame," he continued. "Since you tell me that Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye is content to remain here, I am satisfied that it is so."
They were the very words that she desired to hear from him; yet his manner of uttering them gave her little reassurance. The smile on her lips was forced; her watchful eyes smiled not at all.
"Still," he continued, "you will be so good as to remember that I am not my own master in this affair. Were that so, I should not fail to relieve you at once of my unbidden presence."
"But, being the Queen's emissary, I have her orders to obey, and those orders are to convey Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye to Paris. They make no allowance for any change that may have occurred in mademoiselle's inclinations. If the journey is now distasteful to her, she has but her own rashness to blame in having sought it herself. What imports is that she is bidden by the Queen to repair to Paris; as a loyal subject she must obey the Queen's commands; you, as a loyal subject, must see to it that she obeys them. So, madame, I count upon your influence with mademoiselle to see that she is ready to set out by noon to-morrow. One day already has been wasted me by your—ah—jest, madame. The Queen likes her ambassadors to be brisk."
The Dowager reclined in her chair, and bit her lip. This man was too keen for her. She had no illusions. He had seen through her as if she had been made of glass; he had penetrated her artifices and detected her falsehoods. Yet feigning to believe her and them, he had first neutralized her only weapons—other than offensive—then used them for her own defeat. Marius it was who took up the conversation.
"Monsieur," he cried—and there was a frown drawing together his fine brows—"what you suggest amounts to a tyranny on the Queen's part."
Garnache was on his feet, his chair grating the polished floor.
"Monsieur says?" quoth he, his glittering eye challenging the rash boy to repeat his words.
But the Dowager intervened with a little trill of laughter.
"Bon Dieu! Marius, what are you saying? Foolish boy! And you, Monsieur de Garnache, do not heed him, I beg you. We are so far from Court in this little corner of Dauphiny, and my son has been reared in so free an atmosphere that he is sometimes betrayed into expressions whose impropriety he does not realize."
Garnache bowed in token of his perfect satisfaction, and at that moment two servants entered bearing flagons and beakers, fruits and sweetmeats, which they placed upon the table. The Dowager rose, and went to do the honours of the board. The servants withdrew.
"You will taste our wine of Condillac, monsieur?"
He acquiesced, expressing thanks, and watched her fill a beaker for him, one for herself, and another for her son. She brought him the cup in her hands. He took it with a grave inclination of the head. Then she proffered him the sweetmeats. To take one, he set down the cup on the table, by which he had also come to stand. His left hand was gloved and held his beaver and whip.
She nibbled, herself, at one of the comfits, and he followed her example. The boy, a trifle sullen since the last words, stood on the hearth with his back to the fire, his hands clasped behind him.
"Monsieur," she said, "do you think it would enable you to comply with what I have signified to be not only our own wishes, but those of Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye herself, if she were to state them to you?"
He looked up sharply, his lips parting in a smile that revealed his strong white teeth.
"Are you proposing another of your jests, madame?"
She laughed outright. A wonderful assurance was hers, thought Monsieur de Garnache. "Mon Dieu! no, monsieur," she cried. "If you will, you may see the lady herself."
He took a turn in the apartment, idly, as does a man in thought.
"Very well," said he, at last. "I do not say that it will alter my determination. But perhaps—yes, I should be glad of an opportunity of the honour of making Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye's acquaintance. But no impersonations, I beg, madame!" He said it half-laughingly, taking his cue from her.
"You need have no fear of any."
She walked to the door, opened it, and called "Gaston!" In answer came the page whom Garnache had found in the room when he was admitted.
"Desire Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye to come to us here at once," she bade the boy, and closed the door.
Garnache had been all eyes for some furtive sign, some whispered word; but he had surprised neither.
His pacing had brought him to the opposite end of the board, where stood the cup of wine madame had poured for Marius. His own, Garnache, had left untouched. As if abstractedly, he now took up the beaker, pledged madame with his glance, and drank. She watched him, and suddenly a suspicion darted through her mind—a suspicion that he suspected them.
Dieu! What a man was this! He took no chances. Madame reflected that this augured ill for the success of the last resource upon which, should all else fail, she was counting to keep mademoiselle at Condillac. It seemed incredible that one so wary and watchful should have committed the rashness of venturing alone into Condillac without taking his precautions to ensure his ability to retreat.
In her heart she felt daunted by him. But in the matter of that wine—the faintest of smiles hovered on her lips, her eyebrows went up a shade. Then she took up the cup that had been poured for the Parisian, and bore it to her son.
"Marius, you are not drinking," said she. And seeing a command in her eyes; he took the beaker from her hand and bore it to his lips, emptying the half of it, whilst with the faintest smile of scorn the Dowager swept Garnache a glance of protest, as of one repudiating an unworthy challenge.
Then the door opened, and the eyes of all three were centred upon the girl that entered.
CHAPTER V. MONSIEUR DE GARNACHE LOSES HIS TEMPER
"You sent for me, madame," said the girl, seeming to hesitate upon the threshold of the room, and her voice—a pleasant, boyish contralto—was very cold and conveyed a suggestion of disdain.
The Marquise detected that inauspicious note, and was moved by it to regret her already of having embarked upon so bold a game as to confront Monsieur de Garnache with Valerie. It was a step she had decided upon as a last means of convincing the Parisian of the truth of her statement touching the change that had taken place in mademoiselle's inclinations. And she had provided for it as soon as she heard of Garnache's arrival by informing mademoiselle that should she be sent for, she must tell the gentleman from Paris that it was her wish to remain at Condillac. Mademoiselle had incontinently refused, and madame, to win her compliance, had resorted to threats.
"You will do as you consider best, of course," she had said, in a voice that was ominously sweet. "But I promise you that if you do otherwise than as I tell you, you shall be married before sunset to Marius, whether you be willing or not. Monsieur de Garnache comes alone, and if I so will it alone he shall depart or not at all. I have men enough at Condillac to see my orders carried out, no matter what they be.
"You may tell yourself that this fellow will return to help you. Perhaps he will; but when he does, it will be too late so far as you shall be concerned."
Terrified by that threat, Valerie had blenched, and had felt her spirit deserting her.
"And if I comply, madame?" she had asked. "If I do as you wish, if I tell this gentleman that I no longer desire to go to Paris—what then?"
The Dowager's manner had become more affectionate. She had patted the shrinking girl upon the shoulder. "In that case, Valerie, you shall suffer no constraint; you shall continue here as you have done."
"And has there been no constraint hitherto?" had been the girl's indignant rejoinder.
"Hardly, child," the Dowager had returned. "We have sought to guide you to a wise choice—no more than that. Nor shall we do more hereafter if you do my pleasure now and give this Monsieur de Garnache the answer that I bid you. But if you fail me, remember—you marry Marius before nightfall."
She had not waited for the girl to promise her compliance. She was too clever a woman to show anxiety on that score. She left her with that threat vibrating in her mind, confident that she would scare the girl into obedience by the very assurance she exhibited that Valerie would not dare to disobey.
But now, at the sound of that chill voice, at the sight of that calm, resolved countenance, madame was regretting that she had not stayed to receive the girl's promise before she made so very sure of her pliability.
She glanced anxiously at Garnache. His eyes were upon the girl. He was remarking the slender, supple figure, moderately tall and looking taller in its black gown of mourning; the oval face, a trifle pale now from the agitation that stirred her, with its fine level brows, its clear, hazel eyes, and its crown of lustrous brown hair rolled back under the daintiest of white coifs. His glance dwelt appreciatively on the slender nose, with its delicate nostrils, the charming line of mouth and chin, the dazzling whiteness of her skin, conspicuous not only in neck and face but in the long, slender hands that were clasped before her.
These signs of breeding, everywhere proclaimed, left him content that here was no imposture; the girl before him was, indeed, Valerie de La Vauvraye.
At madame's invitation she came forward. Marius hastened to close the door and to set a chair for her, his manner an admirable suggestion of ardour restrained by deference.
She sat down with an outward calm under which none would have suspected the full extent of her agitation, and she bent her eyes upon the man whom the Queen had sent for her deliverance.
After all, Garnache's appearance was hardly suggestive of the role of Perseus which had been thrust upon him. She saw a tall, spare man, with prominent cheek-bones, a gaunt, high-bridged nose, very fierce mustachios, and a pair of eyes that were as keen as sword-blades and felt to her glance as penetrating. There was little about him like to take a woman's fancy or claim more than a moderate share of her attention, even when circumstances rendered her as interested in him as was now Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye.
There fell a silence, broken at last by Marius, who leaned, a supple, graceful figure, his elbow resting upon the summit of Valerie's chair.
"Monsieur de Garnache does us the injustice to find a difficulty in believing that you no longer wish to leave us."
That was by no means what Garnache had implied; still, since it really expressed his mind, he did not trouble to correct Marius.
Valerie said nothing, but her eyes travelled to madame's countenance, where she found a frown. Garnache observed the silence, and drew his own conclusions.
"So we have sent for you, Valerie," said the Dowager, taking up her son's sentence, "that you may yourself assure Monsieur de Garnache that it is so."
Her voice was stern; it bore to the girl's ears a subtle, unworded repetition of the threat the Marquise had already voiced. Mademoiselle caught it, and Garnache caught it too, although he failed to interpret it as precisely as he would have liked.
The girl seemed to experience a difficulty in answering. Her eyes roved to Garnache's, and fell away in affright before their glitter. That man's glance seemed to read her very mind, she thought; and suddenly the reflection that had terrified her became her hope. If it were as she deemed it, what matter what she said? He would know the truth, in spite of all.
"Yes, madame," she said at last, and her voice was wholly void of expression. "Yes, monsieur, it is as madame says. It is my wish to remain at Condillac."
From the Dowager, standing a pace or two away from Garnache, came the sound of a half-sigh. Garnache missed nothing. He caught the sound, and accepted it as an expression of relief. The Marquise stepped back a pace; idly, one might have thought; not so thought Garnache. It had this advantage: that it enabled her to stand where he might not watch her face without turning his head. He was content that such was her motive. To defeat her object, to show her that he had guessed it, he stepped back, too, also with that same idleness of air, so that he was once more in line with her. And then he spoke, addressing Valerie.
"Mademoiselle, that you should have written to the Queen in haste is deplorable now that your views have undergone this change. I am a stupid man, mademoiselle, just a blunt soldier with orders to obey and no authority to think. My orders are to conduct you to Paris. Your will was not taken into consideration. I know not how the Queen would have me act, seeing your reluctance; it may be that she would elect to leave you here, as you desire. But it is not for me to arrogate to determine the Queen's mind. I can but be guided by her orders, and those orders leave me no course but one—to ask you, mademoiselle, to make ready immediately to go with me."
The look of relief that swept into Valerie's face, the little flush of colour that warmed her cheeks, hitherto so pale, were all the confirmation that he needed of what he suspected.
"But, monsieur," said Marius, "it must be plain to you that since the Queen's orders are but a compliance with mademoiselle's wishes, now that mademoiselle's wishes have altered, so too would Her Majesty's commands alter to comply with them once more."
"That may be plain to you, monsieur; for me, unfortunately, there are my orders for only guide," Garnache persisted. "Does not mademoiselle herself agree with me?"
She was about to speak; her glance had looked eager, her lips had parted. Then, of a sudden, the little colour faded from her cheeks again, and she seemed stricken with a silence. Garnache's eyes, directed in a sidelong glance to the Marquise's face, surprised there a frown that had prompted that sudden change.
He half-turned, his manner changing suddenly to a freezing civility.
"Madame la Marquise," said he, "I beg with all deference to suggest that I am not allowed the interview you promised me with Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye."
The ominous coldness with which he had begun to speak had had a disturbing effect upon the Dowager; the words he uttered, when she had weighed them, brought an immense relief. It seemed, then, that he but needed convincing that this was Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye. This argued that for the rest he was satisfied.
"There, monsieur, you are at fault," she cried, and she was smiling into his grave eyes. "Because once I put that jest upon you, you imagine—"
"No, no," he broke in. "You misapprehend me. I do not say that this is not Mademoiselle de La Vauvraye; I do not say that—"
He paused; he was at the end of his resources. He did not know how to put the thing without giving offence, and it had been his resolve—realizing the necessity for it—to conduct this matter with a grave courtesy.
To feel that after having carried the affair so far with a for him—commendable lightness of touch, he should be at a loss for a delicate word to convey a harsh accusation began to anger him. And once Garnache began to be angered, the rest followed quickly. It was just that flaw in his character that had been the ruin of him, that had blighted what otherwise might have been a brilliant career. Astute and wily as a fox, brave as a lion, and active as a panther, gifted with intelligence, insight and resource, he had carried a dozen enterprises up to the very threshold of success, there to have ruined them all by giving way to some sudden access of choler.
So was it now. His pause was but momentary. Yet in that moment, from calm and freezing that he had been, he became ruffled and hot. The change was visible in his heightened colour, in his flashing eyes, and in his twitching mustachios. For just a second he sought to smother his wrath; he had a glimmer of remembrance of the need for caution and diplomacy in the darkness of anger that was descending over him. Then, without further warning, he exploded.
His nervous, sinewy hand clenched itself and fell with a crash upon the table, overturning a flagon and sending a lake of wine across the board, to trickle over at a dozen points and form in puddles at the feet of Valerie. Startled, they all watched him, mademoiselle the most startled of the three.
"Madame," he thundered, "I have been receiving dancing-lessons at your hands for long enough. It is time, I think, we did a little ordinary walking, else shall we get no farther along the road I mean to go and that is the road to Paris with mademoiselle for company."
"Monsieur, monsieur!" cried the startled Marquise, placing herself intrepidly before him; and Marius trembled for her, for so wild did the man seem that he almost feared he might strike her.
"I have heard enough," he blazed. "Not another word from any here in Condillac! I'll take this lady with me now, at once; and if any here raises a finger to resist me, as Heaven is my witness, it will be the last resistance he will ever offer any man. Let a hand be laid upon me, or a sword bared before my eyes, and I swear, madame, that I'll come back and burn this dunghill of rebellion to the ground."
In the blindness of his passion all his fine keenness was cast to the wind, his all-observing watchfulness was smothered in the cloud of anger that oppressed his brain. He never saw the sign that madame made to her son, never so much as noticed Marius's stealthy progress towards the door.
"Oh," he continued, a satirical note running now through his tempestuous voice, "it is a fine thing to cozen each other with honeyed words, with smirks and with grimaces. But we have done with that, madame." He towered grimly above her, shaking a threatening finger in her very face. "We have done with that. We shall resort to deeds, instead."
"Aye, monsieur," she answered very coldly, sneering upon his red-hot fury, "there shall be deeds enough to satisfy even your outrageous thirst for them."
That cold, sneering voice, with its note of threat, was like a hand of ice upon his overheated brain. It cooled him on the instant. He stiffened, and looked about him. He saw that Marius had disappeared, and that mademoiselle had risen and was regarding him with singularly imploring eyes.
He bit his lip in mortified chagrin. He cursed himself inwardly for a fool and a dolt—the more pitiable because he accounted himself cunning above others. Had he but kept his temper, had he done no more than maintain the happy pretence that he was a slave to the orders he had received—a mere machine—he might have gained his ends by sheer audacity. At least, his way of retreat would have remained open, and he might have gone, to return another day with force at his heels.
As it was, that pretty whelp, her son, had been sent, no doubt, for men. He stepped up to Valerie.
"Are you ready, mademoiselle?" said he; for little hope though he might still have of winning through, yet he must do the best to repair the damage that was of his making.
She saw that the storm of passion had passed, and she was infected by the sudden, desperate daring that prompted that question of his.
"I am ready, monsieur," said she, and her boyish voice had an intrepid ring. "I will come with you as I am."
"Then, in God's name, let us be going."
They moved together towards the door, with never another glance for the Dowager where she stood, patting the head of the hound that had risen and come to stand beside her. In silence she watched them, a sinister smile upon her beautiful, ivory face.
Then came a sound of feet and voices in the anteroom. The door was flung violently open, and a half-dozen men with naked swords came blundering into the room, Marius bringing up the rear.
With a cry of fear Valerie shrank back against the panelled wall, her little hands to her cheeks, her eyes dilating with alarm.
Garnache's sword rasped out, an oath rattled from his clenched teeth, and he fell on guard. The men paused, and took his measure. Marius urged them on, as if they had been a pack of dogs.
"At him!" he snapped, his finger pointing, his handsome eyes flashing angrily. "Cut him down!"
They moved; but mademoiselle moved at the same moment. She sprang before them, between their swords and their prey.
"You shall not do it; you shall not do it!" she cried, and her face looked drawn, her eyes distraught. "It is murder—murder, you curs!" And the memory of how that dainty little lady stood undaunted before so much bared steel, to shield him from those assassins, was one that abode ever after with Garnache.